CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/CharlotteObserver) - Central Florida linebacker/safety Shaquem Griffin became this year's most inspiring NFL draft story at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome, a congenital condition that caused him to lose his left hand at age 4. He played football his entire life despite the disability, ultimately helping lead the Knights to an undefeated 2017. He was the Defensive Player of the Year honors for the American Athletic Conference in 2016, and a second-team All-American.
His disability also didn't stop him from becoming a national name at the combine this year.
And the Carolina Panthers should be on notice.
Griffin, testing with the linebackers, measured in at 6-feet and 227 pounds and put up 20 repetitions at 225 pounds on the bench press with a prosthetic hand and wrist.
He's come a long way since first getting fitted for the prosthetic his during his freshman year of college.
"I could barely bench the bar," Griffin said. "I mean, I'm shaking all over the place and the bar is falling, and I can't lift 45 pounds. But it just goes to show how much work I put in to get to this point.
"From shaking with the bar, I remember doing my first pull-up. … my mom saw me do my first pull-up my freshman year and she's emotional and she started crying. ... But it's amazing to see how far I came, from not being able to bench the bar to throwing up 20 reps at 225, and able to compete with the best here."
Griffin also ran a blazing-fast 4.38 40-yard dash that went viral and attracted the attention of many current and former players. It was the fastest-recorded 40-yard dash by a linebacker in the history of the event.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who is teammates with Griffin's brother Shaquill, even tweeted that Griffin should go in the first two days of the draft.
To many teams, Griffin is a risk who will simply stay a great story.
But in Carolina, Griffin could actually make a difference.
After the Panthers cut safety Kurt Coleman last week, they're looking hard at this safety class. They'll probably use an early-round pick on a safety, and it probably won't be Griffin.
But Griffin fits some very specific needs for Carolina, and because he isn't a typical prospect, he could end up being a fifth or sixth-round steal.
Despite his disability, Griffin can flat-out play. He had 18.5 sacks in two years, specializing as an outside blitzer, and defensed 13 passes on 42 targets (at times using his left arm to punch). He has an explosive first step and endurance in maintaining pursuit speed, something that helped him rack up 164 tackles (33.5 for loss) in his final two seasons.
A brief look at his film shows something interesting, too: Griffin can't make the sloppy arm-tackles, a bad habit for many young defensive backs, because he has to make up for his missing hand. He instead wraps physically and fully – something head coach Ron Rivera hoped his secondary would do more consistently last season.
His film against Auburn last season is especially impressive. He played all 90 defensive snaps and hassled the quarterback long into the game, when both sides looked fatigued.
Griffin is versatile, with experience at linebacker, safety and defensive end, and could also be a star on special teams. The Panthers hold all those qualities dear. Colin Jones, a roster constant because of his versatility and special teams prowess, will turn 31 in the fall, and it could be time to find his replacement.
Coupling Griffin's size and speed with his experience at linebacker means he can rotate in with Shaq Thompson in Carolina's popular big-nickel (Buffalo) package. Thompson is expected to see more snaps this year as a traditional linebacker with veteran Thomas Davis in his final season, and having depth such as Griffin can only be an asset.
Plus, allowing him to be a situational weapon might ease some of the potential concerns a coach could have about Griffin's lack of left hand, such as whether he can shed blocks consistently. Allowing him to explore his potential at safety would also help.
Meanwhile, his work ethic is apparent. Griffin penned a beautiful letter to NFL general managers via The Players' Tribune last week that illustrated how he never gave up on his dream of playing football despite the roadblocks his disability created, even sleeping on an air mattress at the football facility before his senior season.
"A lot of people see somebody who has one hand instead of two, and they think it's different or it doesn't make sense. 'Oh, he has one hand – how can you play football?' Griffin said. "Well, what if I say, 'You have two hands, can you play football?' At the end of the day, you have to show what you can do. You can't set limits on what you can do, whether you have two hands or 30 hands.
"Don't set limits for me, because when I wake up in the morning and I brush my teeth and I look at myself in the mirror, its only me that I see in the mirror. I'm not going to see anybody else in the mirror. That's how I live, day by day. When I look in the mirror, it's up to me to accomplish everything I want out of life."
Rivera emphasized last week his desire to find young and immediate leadership in the defensive backs room to replace the attitude Coleman brought.
Griffin could be that guy. Not only could he make a difference on the field, he would be a tangible everyday reminder of what it takes to be in an NFL locker room, and how persistance and hard work can pay off.